Back On the Bus

Every day in America, 85,444 workers lose their jobs. 14.7 million people are jobless, underemployed or have given up looking for work. 43.6 million people have no health insurance. 4,227 people file for personal bankruptcy. 12,878 workers are injured or made ill by their jobs. 6.8 million people are in the workforce but are still poor. 11 million children attend broken-down schools.

These are the almost-numbing statistics about the state of America's working families. They are among the most important parts of the case against George W. Bush. How could somebody do so little while so many hurt?

Worse, many Bush policies exacerbate these problems. His proposal to take away overtime pay from some 8 million American workers will surely increase the number of people who work but are still poor. It will also mean bosses demand more time at work and less time for families, children and self.

Tax breaks for corporations that export jobs are another kick. If the benefits of globalization were the creation of information technology (IT) and other white-collar jobs, these benefits bypassed America. India, the Philippines and other countries were the winners in that contest. More than 14 million white-collar jobs could be shipped overseas during the next few years, according to a University of California, Berkeley study.

What's missing from this accountant-like recitation of the economic restructuring of today and the future? People. The ripple effects across our nation and our economy reach families and homes.

Those stories of struggle in the Bush economy were the focus of an eight-day, 19-city bus tour across the heartland by 51 jobless or struggling Americans. Sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the Show Us the Jobs tour included a representative from every state and Washington, D.C. After beginning in St. Louis, the tour traveled through Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania before stopping in our nation's capital. I joined the tour as AFL-CIO staff to help bus riders write online journals (blogs!) from the bus and jockey Internet exposure for the tour.

Waking Up from the American Dream

At a tour stop in Rochester, Minnesota -- home to an IBM regional training center -- bus riders spoke out about the outsourcing crisis that began with 2.8 million manufacturing jobs but now reaches into white-collar and IT jobs. Washington state bus rider Myra, 40, was working an IT job at WatchMark Corp. for two years. One day, her entire department was informed they would be laid off in one month. Worse, they were told to train their Indian replacements or lose their severance package. Still without work after a 10-month search, Myra's unemployment benefits just ran out.

"My life has changed drastically over my 10 months of unemployment. I've cashed in my 401(k), can no longer afford health insurance and can just barely pay the rest of the bills. I no longer plan for the future; I just try to make it through the present. I've even resorted to selling a number of my things on eBay to get money for essentials."

"I think that my biggest struggles throughout this experience are the constant feelings of powerlessness and paralysis. I did everything I could to succeed. I got a good education. I paid off big student loans. I worked hard at my job. But I now realize that it doesn't matter what I do to make myself a marketable employee if there are no policies in this country to protect our jobs from being sent overseas to someone who will work for 1/16th the price. I can't compete with that. You could say that I woke up from the American dream."

The failure of the American dream was a common theme among the bus riders. Texas bus rider Jim, at a stop in Youngstown, Ohio, expressed the relief he felt because, though jobless, he didn't have a family to support. "What has happened to the American dream?" that a young man celebrates the marketability his lack of a family provides, asked Linda, the Nevada rider.

The Electrolux Tragedy

These stories of job loss aren't isolated to individuals. Entire communities and families are devastated when it is a company town that takes a hit. Greenville, Mich., is home to an Electrolux refrigerator factory. Electrolux has announced its plan to shutter the plant and move it to Mexico. The plant's 2,700 workers will lose their jobs.

The tour stop in Greenville was very emotional for the bus riders and the community. As riders stepped off the buses and walked into the Greenville High School gym for a rally, people lined the hallway and silently applauded or thanked them.

As the rally proceeded, Ember, the 15-year old granddaughter of a local Electrolux worker and member of UAW Local 137, read a letter from the mayor. Before she began to read the letter, she shared that her family is without work. This teenager -- crying a little now -- recounted that her family might lose their home, their car or worse. She's afraid, asking, "What will we have?" and goes silent, in tears. The crowd paused in silence, but then in a deep baritone voice from the back of the room, a crowd member shouted out, "You've got us," and the crowd applauded.

A local union leader stood up to recount the story of their efforts to save the Electrolux jobs. At a meeting, a company executive explained that the fate of the Greenville factory was set. In fact, the company would have moved the jobs to China rather than Mexico, except the refrigerators were too big for the shipping containers used on container ships that go from China to the United States.

The lesson was clear: the fate of the Greenville families is tied up in the torrent of the global economy.

The Power of Coming Together

It isn't only jobless Americans who are feeling hit by the Bush economy. Kansas representative Randy, 48, has been out of the military since 1979 and has worked at Boeing for the past 24 years as an engineering technician in a metrology laboratory. Randy is doing the same job for Boeing that he was trained to do in the military, and because of the Bush administration's overtime pay take-away, he will likely lose his right to overtime pay. A one-line provision buried in the Bush regulation uses military service as criteria for stripping Randy and other veterans of their right to overtime pay.

"How do you tell the people who are laying down their lives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, 'Thank you very much for your service, and now that you're home, no overtime pay for you?' This just is not fair."

Parts of the tour were like visiting an economic war zone. There were hundreds of heart-wrenching stories we heard just in our everyday interactions. It would've been easy to lose hope, but many of the riders were on a mission.

Dawn, the Arizona rider, provided a clear analysis of what needed to happen. In her online journal, she took the heart-grabbing stories of all the bus riders and turned them into powerful calls to action for America when she wrote:

"I am just a regular American, and I have to make a difference. You have to. We have to. We have to stand up and say, 'We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore.' We have to be willing to work -- not just at our jobs but also for our jobs. We've got to get out in the streets, on the radio, in the newspapers, knocking on doors, standing in front of crowds -- whether we want to or not."

"There is no 'someone' who is going to fix America. There is only us -- you and I and all of our regular American friends and family and colleagues."

Sounds right to me.

Tom Matzzie is online mobilization manager at the AFL-CIO and rode the bus on the Show Us the Jobs tour.

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